Dr. Adva Gadoth, originally of Farmington Hills, talks coronavirus research and her love for public health.
As an epidemiologist, Dr. Adva Gadoth has been thinking about COVID-19 since long before most Americans. She and her colleagues were hopeful back in February that the United States would keep the virus at bay.
But the U.S. couldn’t control the virus in those crucial mid-February weeks, and that’s when Gadoth and her colleagues knew this would spread like wildfire.
“I think we all had this light bulb go off in mid-February that things are not going well,” she said.
Gadoth, who grew up in Farmington Hills and earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2019, has been working as a staff epidemiologist at UCLA. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her work was focused on vaccination projects and studying emerging infectious diseases in low- and middle-income countries, primarily the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Once the pandemic hit, though, Gadoth’s team realized there was a need for better public health data right there in Los Angeles. They quickly transitioned into a research study that investigates the impact of the novel coronavirus on high-risk populations in the L.A. area, beginning with healthcare workers at the UCLA hospital and first responders from the L.A. County Fire Department. The team is now working to extend their study to teachers in the county.
Gadoth describes the study as “population-based research where we can kind of take a holistic look at what’s happening in these groups. What differences do we see in behavior and practices that can explain upticks or down ticks in infection rate?”
Her role is to coordinate the study, meaning that she designs it to be unbiased and scientifically sound. That includes choosing which people to enroll in the study, making sure it adheres to ethical guidelines and overseeing the actual fieldwork — the testing of subjects.
Once the data is collected, she’ll also analyze the findings and act as public relations person, making sure other scientists know about it and non-scientists can understand it. Keeping science and public health understandable to everyone is extremely important to Gadoth — she held virtual Q&A sessions with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’s young adult branch this spring.
Gadoth has found her passion in the field of public health. “When I stumbled upon it in my undergrad career, I kind of instantly knew it was what I wanted to do for a living,” Gadoth told the Jewish News. “All those cheesy things everyone tells you about how you’ll take a class in college and it’ll all just click and make sense actually happened for me.”
The class was a freshman seminar at University of Michigan called Emerging Infectious Diseases. “I loved everything about it,” she said. Public health “combines my love of biology and also foreign relations and government and politics and human behavior. I loved all of it.”
That inspired Gadoth to get her master’s in public health from the University of Michigan, and then do a yearlong fellowship through American Jewish World Service, working on maternal and child health initiatives in India. She returned to Ann Arbor to work as a toxicologist but soon realized she missed the human interaction side of public health, so she decided to go back to school for her Ph.D.
Now, she’s researching the impact of COVID-19 and trying to figure out how to create and run a public health study during a global pandemic. Study development usually happens over the course of several months, Gadoth said, but this project was off the ground in about three weeks.
That hasn’t been the team’s only timing challenge: they thought there would be a huge COVID-19 spike in L.A. in April, and they’d be able to begin analyzing their data and drawing conclusions right away.
But “we had a really low positivity rate among our health care workers and first responders, which makes the analysis really difficult to do,” Gadoth said. “We have over 2,000 people enrolled in our study, and only had 25 positives right up until a couple of weeks ago.”
Now, in the weeks after summer holidays and Black Lives Matter protests and a rolling back of state-imposed restrictions, that spike has arrived in L.A.
“A funny, weird part of working with human populations … is that you just never really know when things are going to happen,” Gadoth said. “You just have to be there, be ready and be collecting data the whole time, so that when something does happen, you catch it.”
Despite the roadblocks, Gadoth has found the research to be rewarding. She loves the ability to test people for the study and then provide them with their own test results in real time, she said.
It also gives her a sense of purpose. “It would be really hard to be watching from the sidelines and be stuck at home if I didn’t feel I was also able to add to our response in some way and sort out the questions that remain,” she said.
Gadoth’s public health advice to all Americans right now is to wear a mask and keep a distance from everyone outside your household. When social interaction does happen, do it outside. And get your flu shot.
“Please get your flu shot to protect yourself from another respiratory disease, which could have compounding effects if you have both simultaneously,” Gadoth said. “We don’t know anything about that yet, but they’re both respiratory illnesses that could be really devastating to have a co-infection of those two things.”